The first introduction to psychology usually comes in the form of biology classes. Many biology students already come into class with at least basic knowledge of psychology. They know that their genes determine how their bodies work, how they function and, to a certain degree, how they behave or what illnesses they may develop. But very few of these students have a clear comprehension of what exactly DNA is, where it’s found in the body, why it causes problems, and how it can be manipulated or changed.
In the case of development, the genes passed from one generation to the next just need to survive. Genes are nothing more than instructions for doing things. Humans, as all living things, are programmed through thousands of years of natural selection to participate in behavior that’s survival oriented. The foundation for this programming is that the expression of specific genes that cause specific traits, such as aggressiveness, violence or sexuality. In the case of psychology, the genes that are passed on to us through our parents, siblings, or other kin will determine such behaviour.
In terms of understanding what is happening genetically, we are still in the age of molecular biology. Within this framework, genes are simply packets of information carrying instructions. This is how humans, plants and animals have been growing for centuries. However, in the last 50 years or so, a revolution in the field of psychology has occurred known as molecular biology or genomics. Genomics provides a new lens through which we can see the relationships between behavior and genes.
The molecular basis for behaviors and human memory is actually quite simple – it is all about the epigenome. The Epigenome is a cellular memory storage that determines whether or not a behavior is going to be expressed or not. Like all memory storage systems, it contains information that is “programmed” in advance by the genome.
What we now know is that the genetic material that determines behavior exists in all of us, but in varying amounts. Most of the variations come from the variation in the copies of genes within the mobile memory storage of the person. The copy of the gene which determines the behaviour is called the epigome. It’s this specific copy that we call the epigenome.
The importance of the epigenome in psychology and its relationship to individual differences was revealed in a landmark study on twins. For years, autism research was based upon research on twins. However, it was found that there was substantial heritability (hitability) to behavior that existed between people who had identical twins but whose traits were very different. This study provided the first evidence of the importance of the epigenome in human behaviour and its connection to abnormal behavioral disorders like autism.
Even though the importance of the Epigenome in psychology has been established, many in the psychological area are hesitant to accept its potential as a substantial factor in mental illness. 1 reason for this is that it is hard to define an actual genetic sequence or locus that causes a behavioral disorder. Another issue is that there are just too many genetic differences between people to use a single DNA sequence to determine mental illness. Finally, even though the study on the Epigenome has been promising, more work needs to be done to find out the role that genetics play in complex diseases such as schizophrenia. If this finding holds true, it may be used as a foundation for studying other complicated diseases that have complex genetic elements.
If you are interested in learning more about Epigenetics and how it applies to psychology, I strongly advise that you follow the links below. My website discusses the exciting new technologies that are available today to better understand how Epigenetics affects behavior and the susceptibility to disease. You can even hear me speak on my epigenetics and autism blog. My research into Epigenetics is focused on understanding the ecological causes of disease, but I also have been involved in studying the relationship between Epigenetics and Autism. My future posts will also discuss diseases of the mind which can be affected by Epigenetics.